Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

In Pursuit of Regulatory Compliance: A Study of Planning Enforcement Structures in Northern Ireland

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

In Pursuit of Regulatory Compliance: A Study of Planning Enforcement Structures in Northern Ireland

Article excerpt

As Northern Ireland (NI) progresses towards a system of local government reform in 2015, new legislation in the form of the Planning Act (NI) 2011 has been produced not only to accommodate devolved planning powers that deliver justice and fairness, but also to regulate for an economy that is dynamic, innovative and sustainable (DOENI, 2009). However, serious questions have been asked regarding aspects of its content, particularly in the context of planning enforcement. In November 2011, Friends of the Earth published a report focused on public and stakeholder opinion on planning, which identified the perception that there was 'failure in enforcement' and that improvement should be considered a strategic priority for the emerging localised planning system. It was suggested that the new legislative framework facilitates economic growth to the detriment of both the built and natural environment. The Minister for the Environ- ment at the time of the investigation, Alex Attwood, recognised that there was a need to develop a deeper understanding of the enforcement problem through the evidence- based approaches that buttress government practice.

It is no surprise, therefore, that on 26 June 2012 the Minister for the Environment held an enforcement summit attended by a wide range of experts, where he stated: 'I want to protect our environment by escalating enforcement, but I want to do this in a focussed way, with appropriate architecture in the context of legislation, planning and the structures we put in place to support all of that' (DOENI, 2012).

With concerns over the provisions of the new legislation and motivated by the comments of Harris (2010), who, in an earlier issue of this journal, explained how reviews of planning enforcement have had little impetus behind them, the purpose of this investigation is to evaluate the effectiveness of the regulatory planning system in protecting the environment as a devolved local government framework is implemented.

The study, designed around a focus stakeholder research programme, has been conducted in three key phases. Phase one of the investigation involves a review and analysis of secondary sources - specifically, literature, policy and legislation. First, a review of planning enforcement legislation identifies an array of strengths and weaknesses in different jurisdictions across the UK and Ireland where there are structural similarities between planning systems. This is coupled with the establish- ment of a theoretical framework, which enables the study to be conceptualised. The framework - which connects the theory of regulation (Hutter, 1997; 1998; Baldwin and Black, 2008) to voluntarism (Dobson, 2007) - enables a deeper understanding of enforcement structures to be established and provides clarity regarding planning enforcement praxis. In addition to facilitating a comprehensive understanding of the problems that pervade international enforcement systems, it identifies a number of key issues that form the basis for the empirical work. Four key research questions emerge relating to criminalisation, the Magistrates Court, immunity and compli- ance legislation, which are subsequently scrutinised through the theoretical lens in a primary investigation (phase two). Here, expert knowledge from a cohort of special- ists employed in academia, policy making and practice provides insights into how the complex enforcement equation might be solved (Table 1).

It is, however, important to remain cognisant that the planning debate in NI is highly contested and, consequently, there is potential for respondents to have a biased opinion, possibly influenced by their personal beliefs or employment affiliation. Nonetheless, the views presented provide a contemporaneous snapshot of the opinions of those closely associated with regulatory planning and, consequently, the issues raised may be worthy of further scrutiny at a wider level. In all cases, those interviewed agreed that their comments could be attributed to them, with the exception of the Minister for the Environment; however, no-one has been identified specifically by name. …

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